Scarlet Letter

The Dorsal Spin


A month ago, we were blessed to see J and L Pod Southern Residents in Haro Strait. As the orcas streamed by the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, we searched anxiously for Scarlet (J50) and Tahlequah (J35). In the tradition of beloved Granny (J2), matriarch Shachi (J19) led the procession. Tahlequah’s son Notch (J47) frolicked in the nearshore kelp with his buddy Cookie (J38). Several Kéet chased salmon — delightful! Many of the “ladies” traveled farther off shore in the late afternoon glare. The families of Scarlet and Tahlequah – the J16s and J17s — were in this group.

We first heard of Scarlet’s poor condition in mid-June; it is a testament to her fortitude that she has endured for so long. She is reminiscent of another plucky orca youngster: Kéetla/Springer in 2002. Methods used in the successful intervention with Springer (A73) inform the emergency response with Scarlet (J50). Deworming and antibiotics proved to be enormously beneficial to sickly Springer. Sixteen years later, Springer is a Northern Resident matriarch with two gorgeous, plump offspring. Scarlet has an advantage that orphaned Springer lacked – instant support from her mother Slick (J16) and close relatives. Precious Scarlet is a future breeding female; sitting idly by while she starves is unacceptable.

After our thrilling encounter at Lime Kiln, an early August opening for Fraser River sockeye in Haro Strait drove the Southern Residents (SRKW) away — out to the ocean. With grieving Tahlequah and starving Scarlet, J Pod understandably would seek to avoid the blaring underwater noise and presence of dozens of fishing boats. Though the fishery was for sockeye, we worried about incidental Chinook bycatch.

Last time I proposed personal sacrifices to make in service to the SRKW. This time your homework is to discover how acoustic disturbance adversely impacts orcas. Visit The Whale Museum’s SeaSound Remote Sensing Network page to find links to hydrophones and samples of boat noise. Look up vessel effects studies on NOAA Fisheries West Coast’s website and social media – that is also where to follow the progress of J50’s intervention. San Juan Island based Orca Relief ( has website and social media links to research on vessel effects and other threats. Read up on Dr. Chris Clark’s “acoustic smog” model – “Animation shows boats make ‘acoustic hell’ for orcas” is posted on Briefly, excessive boats around the SRKW severely compromise their foraging and echolocation efficiency, making it difficult or even impossible at times for the orcas to find the ever-dwindling Chinook salmon they prefer.

Cleaning up persistent toxins in the Salish Sea is a no-brainer – why in the hell are PCBs still being discharged into our waters? NOAA must honor handsome Nigel’s (L95’s) sacrifice (he died from an infected satellite tag) and expand SRKW critical habitat to include the West Coast. Dam breaching has a boisterous online constituency, but dam breaching alone is insufficient to save the SRKW. Salmon recovery and habitat restoration efforts MUST be accompanied by efforts to mitigate vessel presence and reduce underwater noise. Our SRKW need immediate relief.

Canadian NGOs Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the David Suzuki Foundation are calling for truly daring action toward orca recovery, challenging the new Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson

“ . . . to immediately close recreational and commercial marine Chinook fisheries, to suspend all commercial and recreational whale watching targeting the Southern Residents, and to actively enforce these measures.” Check out the proposal with supporting documents, and sign the petition if you agree at Governor Inslee’s orca recovery task force must consider similar gutsy action. Any serious initiative to prevent SRKW extinction requires sacrifice and perhaps a little pain from all stakeholders and special interests – essentially, everyone.

I trust Transient killer whales, but not bureaucrats, to cull seals and sea lions. Some folks blame pinnipeds for human errors such as inadequate fish passage on many rivers. From a July 30 Vancouver Sun article by Drs. Peter Ross and Lance Barrett-Lennard, “Harbour seals are easy scapegoats in Chinook salmon decline:”

“Unfortunately, history is rife with failed attempts to manage populations by removing predators from the ecosystem. In this case, we need to focus on mitigating our own impacts so as to better protect salmon and their habitat. As tempting as it is to lay the blame on seals, it is we humans that have work to do. Let’s celebrate the vibrant population of these predators — seals were equally abundant during pre-contact times when salmon was plentiful.”

Akin to a Scarlet Letter, humans warrant a badge of disgrace if we do not muster the political will to do what is desperately needed to ensure the survival of Tahlequah, Scarlet, and their extended SRKW clan.

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS & STRANDINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. We still have seal pups. When reporting a sighting or stranding, be specific: date, time, location, travel direction, species description, number of whales/seals/etc., and behavior observed. We prefer phone reports, but if email is the only way to coax you to report to us, send sightings and photos to Your photos of marine mammals are valuable for ID purposes. Do not assume we will randomly find stuff posted online. We are grateful to everyone who reports directly to us.